Canonical gives a promising preview of Ubuntu for phones and tablets

I’m always excited to see a new mobile operating system. Therefore, as soon as Canonical released the Ubuntu for phones developer preview, I had to try it out. While the developer preview experience was shaky, the OS shows exciting promise. Ubuntu for phones is a compelling alternative to the three major mobile OSs (iOS, Android, Windows Phone).

As a new OS without an established user base, Ubuntu is free to experiment with new possibilities for user interfaces in ways that Apple and Google can’t. Apple’s efforts in smartphone user interaction design first yielded the iPhone and then iOS which is designed for both phones and tablets. iOS’s chief user interface is an easy to use but inflexible grid of app icons. The grid of icons is nothing new to graphical user interfaces, but Apple polished it to the point where it has become itself iconic. Google iterated upon the app grid paradigm, giving the user more flexibility in screen layout, home screen widgets that extend app capabilities, a drop down notification menu and the ability to change system defaults like the browser or camera to custom third-party apps.

But Android’s approach is fundamentally similar to that of iOS: swipe through grids of apps, touch the one you want, and it launches. Microsoft’s foray into the mobile market, Windows Phone, took a new tack. Their interface features a minimal, vertically scrollable panel of tiles which blur the line between apps and widgets, both displaying information on the home screen and launching their requisite app when selected. These design ideas are also present in Windows 8 and Windows RT on the Surface, as they are Microsoft’s attempt to converge their user experience across multiple OSes.

Ubuntu takes Microsoft’s convergence idea a step further, offering a phone that can transform into a full PC or media center when using an external monitor. These interfaces are tailored to respective platforms, yet share consistent user experience appropriately named “Unity.” Ubuntu for phones borrows features from all of these OSs while adding some new ideas.

The user interface design will feel familiar to users of Ubuntu on the desktop, yet it is distinct from its competitors. A survey: iOS looks like a graphic design student’s wet dream, Android’s post-Singularity interface is futuristic to a fault and Windows Phone manages a cluttered minimalism. Ubuntu is good-looking, futuristic and minimal, but in a unique way with a friendly, human touch. The eased curves of Ubuntu’s icons give it a casual feel not found in any other mobile OS. By comparison, even iOS feels uptight. These curves also echo those of Google’s Nexus devices, on which Canonical chose to demo their OS. Ubuntu looks even better on tablets. The Nexus 10 tablet seems like it was built to be an Ubuntu flagship device. In fact, it looks better running Ubuntu than Android.

What really sets Ubuntu apart is the innovation in terms of gesture-based user interaction. Multi-finger gestures on the iPad demonstrated that there was a lot more possibilities for touch screen interaction than swipe and pinch-to-zoom. Ubuntu performs as expected for normal touch gestures, but swiping in from an edge of the screen will trigger a special action. Swiping from the left reveals a dock of frequently used apps, from the right takes you to the previously used app. Swiping from the top reveals quick settings and messages which can themselves be navigated through a clever horizontal swipe. And in apps, swiping from the bottom gets you to settings and search. Even more importantly, this works the same in all apps (I’m looking at you, Android developers). It’s a huge boon to usability and Canonical should “patent the hell out of it” if they can before Apple invents this and sues them for it. As great as Jelly Bean is, I will be haunted by this feature until we get a stable version of Ubuntu. Even though the developer preview has little actual functionality in terms of apps, the swiping navigation still impresses. It was hard for me to get used to coming from an OS that rarely discerns edge-swipes, and at first, you will mis-swipe. But the value and ease, not to mention fun factor, is apparent. The gestures are also a pleasure to use on the Nexus 4 — its curved glass front “melts” into the sides of the phone and makes edge-swiping a tactile experience.

Turning on the phone reveals a lock screen not unlike customized Android, but featuring a beautiful visualization of recent activity on the phone. It lacks an obvious unlocking prompt. Instead, to unlock the phone you can either swipe in from the left side of the screen revealing a dock of apps that will be familiar to the desktop Ubuntu user, or the right side revealing the home screen. It’s nearly impossible to get away from the grid of icons, but you’ll encounter it less frequently than you will on iOS and Android. Instead, the home screen features a few recently used apps, your most contacted friends, recent messages, music and popular videos. You can scroll down the home screen like on Windows Phone, but you can also scroll to the left or right to view additional screens featuring music, people, apps and videos. This OS is designed to do what most people do with their phones: communicate with friends and consume entertainment.

The individual screens blur the line between screens, apps and widgets. For instance, the People page displays recent status updates from friends at the top, behavior you might expect from a widget, and displays a contact list if you scroll down, which provides the richer experience you would expect from an app. This could get confusing for users since there is also a contacts pane built into the phone app as well. The music and videos pages have similar issues, especially since there are media player and music apps too. It wasn’t clear to me if these pages were intended to be a proxy for the media player on the device or if they are a storefront to entice me to purchase content. The way it looks to me, there is a lack of clear demarcation here. The objective is that if you search for “Mumford & Sons,” you’ll not only find your copy of “Sigh No More” but you’ll also learn that you can download the deluxe edition of ‘Babel’ for only $11.49. While this feature promises to make it dead simple for you to access and purchase content from vendors like Amazon or the Ubuntu One Music Store and I wouldn’t mind Canonical making some money, I do hope that my OS won’t waste much of its time or mine trying to sell me stuff.

A problem I can foresee is the management of large numbers of apps. The limited preview that I played with lacked any sort of app organization scheme like folders on iOS and Android. Ubuntu keeps the half dozen apps you use most frequently right at your fingertips, but the app you use once in a blue moon may take more effort to find. A strong search tool will make the difference here. What they have looks and feels promising to me, but the version in the preview was limited in functionality.

Of course, having large numbers of apps at this point would be a good problem for Ubuntu to have. Many apps like Facebook and Gmail are simply links to the mobile sites with HTML5 integrating notifications into the OS. To remedy the dearth of apps, Canonical promises a compelling software development kit, allowing app development in familiar programming languages like C++ and JavaScript.

The developer preview is available for most recent unlocked Nexus devices — the Nexus 4, 7, 10, and Galaxy Nexus. I found the installation instructions professionally written and easy to follow, but keep in mind that I’m a computer science major and an Android enthusiast. If you aren’t comfortable using the command line (or don’t know what that is) don’t attempt this. I wouldn’t recommend it anyway, as the installation process involves wiping your device’s memory and the developer preview itself is disappointingly sparse in functionality. The developer preview was laggy to the point of unusability for the first hour, but then it suddenly became satisfyingly smooth. Up until then, the only positive thing I could say about Ubuntu for phones was that it made my Nexus 4 pleasantly warm. Reader, my overheating CPU was truly a comfort for my icy hands on a cold morning. Fortunately, the smoother version allowed me to experience Ubuntu’s main feature — innovative gestures.

While my experience with the developer preview did give me a taste of what it will feel like to use the new OS on a mobile device, I wasn’t able to try out Ubuntu’s killer app — a converged mobile and desktop experience in one device. Ubuntu promises to provide a pleasant and productive experience whether you are using your device as a phone or as a PC with a keyboard, mouse and monitor. Canonical is pioneering the future of personal computing. If they can deliver Ubuntu as a seamless experience, they’ll have me, doubtlessly among many others, as an avid user.